Don't block preschool funds


POSTED: Monday, April 13, 2009

Studies in recent years have affirmed the critical importance of a child's development before age 5, but Hawaii is among only a dozen states that have yet to provide universal pre-kindergarten programs in public schools.

State budget limitations stand in the way of a quick fix, but plans to provide pre-kindergarten schooling should keep moving forward.

Parents understand the importance of preschool. Six of every 10 Hawaii children entering public and private kindergarten now benefit from the early preparation because their families can afford it or qualify for federal assistance through the Head Start program because of low incomes.

A significant gap between families who fit those criteria continues to keep those numbers from improving.

“;Due to the economy and declining state revenues, the immediate future of state-funded preschool is uncertain,”; reports the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in its annual survey of state programs. In those states that have preschool, cutbacks are likely.

The institute notes that Hawaii's school system established Junior Kindergarten in the 2006-07 school year for children who are age-eligible for kindergarten but turn 5 after July 31, making them younger than most children in regular kindergarten. It also includes children who are not developmentally ready for kindergarten although eligible by age.

A 2007 task force assigned by the Legislature to study the issue asked the Legislature last year to begin developing a preschool program that would reach an annual budget of $170 million when it becomes fully operational in a decade. Even then, Gov. Linda Lingle cited “;the current and anticipated fiscal outlook for the state”; in vetoing a bill authorizing the program. Legislators overrode Lingle's veto of the bill, launching the program called Keiki First Steps.

Spending nationally on pre-kindergarten nearly doubled from 2002 to 2008, from $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, as states increased enrollment from 700,000 to 1.1 million. However, nine states have announced cuts to state-run preschool programs and other legislatures are debating cutbacks.

For now, the onus is on the federal government to provide funding, and President Barack Obama promised during last year's campaign that he would make large new investments in early childhood education. At Obama's request, Congress has appropriated more than $4 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start programs and for grants to states to support child care for low-income families. In Hawaii, 2.667 children are enrolled in Head Start programs.

The argument that the economy cannot withstand such expenditures betrays reality. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan point to research showing large paybacks. “;For every dollar we spend on these programs,”; says Duncan, “;we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health-care costs and less crime.”;